At last! A Haydn string quartet was part of the Four Seasons Chamber Music Festival! For many chamber music aficionados, the string quartet represents the alpha and omega of the chamber repertoire, and for some of those fans, the Haydn quartets top the list of favorites. Yet, after having been to every Four Seasons concert since fall of the 2006-07 season, I don’t think I’ve heard a Haydn string quartet performed on the series. Many other top-of-the-line selections, including some fine string quartets, just no Haydn. For the second concert in the festival’s 2013-14 season, however, artistic director Ara Gregorian selected one of Haydn’s Op. 20 quartets and quartets by Mendelssohn and Dvořák to provide a program that was immensely satisfying from start to finish. Gregorian, playing violin, was joined by guests Axel Strauss, violin, Maria Lambros, viola, and Michael Kannen, cello.

The Haydn quartet, No. 4, in D, came early in the composer’s output of quartets and contains a pleasing mix of moods and dynamics. Lightness and near-delicacy permeate much of the opening allegro di molto movement, with an especially nice singing line played well by Strauss in the first violinist’s chair. The movement often contrasts the two violins against the viola and cello, as well as combining all four instruments in repeated four-note figures. Ms. Lambros and Kannen provided a rich sound to balance the upper strings. The second un poco adagio affettuoso movement, with its emotional theme and variations, moves toward a relatively subdued ending, with a prominent lead violin line coupled with an equally prominent cello line. Kannen played a wonderful lead in the all-too-brief third menuetto movement, too, and the four players emphasized nicely the shifts in dynamics in the final presto scherzando movement. Some elements of humor emerge in this movement, portions of which are a lively dance, portions of which contain brief snatches of double-stopped fiddling, here played by Strauss.

Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2, in A-minor, Op. 13, was written at age 18 and is said to reflect the composer’s study of Beethoven’s late string quartets. By 18, however, Mendelssohn had established his own voice, and this gorgeous music received a gorgeous reading by the quartet. In addition to their respective solo passages, the four players also conveyed tension and drama in the ensemble sections, especially in the Adagio non lento second movement, which featured beautiful playing by Gregorian and Ms. Lambros. The third movement, Intermezzo: allegretto con moto, has a most engaging and simple little theme that was opened by Strauss’ solo violin over plucked string accompaniment, but this developed into a flurry of activity led by Ms. Lambros’ spiccato playing and devilishly fast bowing by Kannen. The Presto-adagio non lento final movement has a stormy opening, sections of two violins playing against cello and viola, and passages of legato beauty and real drama. Strauss played a lovely cadenza-like solo near the end, and the four players skillfully closed out the piece’s somber, almost hymn-like ending.

Gregorian moved into the first violinist’s chair for Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14, in A-flat, Op. 105, and he offered some exquisite playing throughout, especially in passages during the second and third movements in which the lead violin takes on a role similar to that of a soprano descant in a choral piece. Both the second molto vivace movement and the third lento e molto cantabile movement have song-like sections, often played by Strauss on second violin or Ms. Lambros, with Gregorian providing a light and delicate line over the melody. The third movement, with its stunningly beautiful melodic development, was perhaps the musical, and even emotional, highlight of the entire evening. The ensemble playing was superb, and the internal contrasts – flowing lead melody line against either pizzicato or staccato – was most interesting. The finale, Allegro, non tanto, has a joyous quality, with sprightly skipping rhythms, a bit of a fugue and even the faintest echo of melodic phrases from Dvořák’s earlier “American” Quartet, not to mention a faint echo of the opening theme in this quartet’s opening Adagio, ma non troppo movement.

The quartet of Gregorian, Strauss, Lambros, and Kannen provided absolutely first-rate music throughout the entire program. The ensemble sound was a seamless blend; the exposed passages showed off individual talents and skills of the first order. And the repertoire chosen represented first-rate string quartet literature, even if the pieces were not of the “Emperor” or “American” warhorse variety. If Gregorian were to plan a string quartet program each season, he could perhaps combine another of the many Haydn quartets with quartets by Mozart, Grieg, Borodin, Schubert, Beethoven, Boccherini or perhaps Fauré or Tchaikovsky. More Haydn would be welcome.

The season continues on Jnauary 16 and 17; for details, click here.